Animating theatre | an interview with Mark Holthusen

Rime Ancient Mariner

This article was written for Animations Online

A prolific photographer and film maker, one of Mark Holthusen’s most striking projects is surely his recent venture into animation with The Tiger Lillies, an eccentric band with a talent for creating work that drips with atmosphere. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is their suitably epic take on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem. Holthusen proved the perfect collaborator, able to design virtual sets that are as grandly imaginative in their vision as the musicians are with their sound. Ahead of the show’s London debut this September, San Francisco based Holthusen talks about animating for live theatre.

You’re a man of many talents – is animation something you’ve always played around with or is this project a new venture?

Over the years I’ve played around with animation but never seriously. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was the first project where I really digged into it. Being my first venture, there were lots of starts and stops, throwing things away and starting over. I’m lucky to have good friends who were able to give me advice, show me better ways of doing things and shepherd me along.

How does animation designed to be watched on a screen (small or large) differ from creating something for the theatre, to be witnessed alongside live action?

I always kept in mind that the audience is there to see the Tiger Lillies and not my animation. I kept in mind that the visual elements to this show needed to support the band and story they were telling. Even then, the first iterations of the show were so over the top, you didn’t know what to do – watch the band, watch the video, listen to the story – it was a mess!

In the end, cleaning it up and simplifying it became the challenge. I tried to put just enough visual storytelling in the animations to help move the poem forward. To answer your question, yes it’s very different. I’ve held screenings of the visuals for friends but without the band it’s really boring. It’s just a bunch of moving stuff, it really needs the live elements or it just falls flat.

How did you and the Tiger Lillies decide to work on this theatre project together?

Years ago the band were coming into town and I had sent an email to their manager asking to do a photo shoot with them as a portfolio project. The band loved the images and got a lot use out of them. I kept in touch and the next time they visited San Francisco we got in contact again. They had just finished ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ recordings and we decided to do a music video.

A few months later Martyn called and asked if I would be interested in working with them on a theatre piece. I had worked on one project like this before with Roger Waters, which was amazing, and I always had it in the back of my head to do another one, so when the opportunity arose I jumped at the chance.

What excites you most about the project and what was most challenging?

The thing that was most exciting is the thing I never expected – it’s live, it changes. On opening night, running the show was terrifying, there is no going back, you have to do this thing and you pray it works. To be honest that never crossed my mind when I agreed to take on the project, but it’s a scary wonderful feeling to have.

The hardest and most rewarding part was working in a new environment. You have to learn so much. Theatre has an amazing history and I wasn’t really familiar with it, it was challenging to learn everything I felt I needed to know to do this show properly.

What techniques did you use to create the animated set?

The show is a collage really. I did a little of everything – stop motion, live action, still images. I love building all these visual pieces and merging them into something new. I kept in my head an overall look I wanted to achieve, then pushed and pulled all these parts into place.

How did you decide on the aesthetic?

Well the Tiger Lillies have, over the years, already built an amazing style, so first I wanted to keep with that and not stray too far from the visual world they’ve already crafted. Their music is so visually strong that it really informs the visuals. I wanted to get away from the vaudeville/cabaret but keep the stage setting feel that their music invokes in me. In my research I fell in love with Baroque theatre, so decided to build one digitally and use it to tell the tale of the Ancient Mariner.

Is your work done or are you still tweaking the film?

I have a hard time letting things go, so each time we did the show I would change and fix things. Now most of the changes are programming things. I’m starting work on a new show with the Tiger Lillies and Opera North, it’s the Tiger Lillies take on ‘Lulu’. So about a month ago I took ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ hard drives out of my computer and put them away. There are always things you could fix or change, sometimes to make it better and sometimes worse. But at a certain point you have to let it go, let it be what it is, and move on to the next project.

You can see more images of Mark Holthusen’s animated sets on the Tiger Lillies’ website, and more film footage here on Vimeo.

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